Zen and the Art of Polar Bear Photography

On a photographic safari in Nunavut, our writer learns a little about capturing the perfect shot and a lot about life in the Far North.

The weight of my camera bag is double that of my suitcase. I have lugged it to the Nunavut Territory, an hour’s flight north of Churchill, Manitoba, to embark on a photo safari. With me are lenses both long and wide, spare batteries, camera bodies and polarizing filters (surely polar bears need polarizers). No bear within 50 kilometres will be able to twitch a whisker without my photographing it.

My home for the week is a former hunting camp, a scattering of sturdy timber cabins wreathed by 13,000 volts of electric fence. At the heart of the camp, hidden behind the coffee cups in the kitchen, the graffiti is rife with bow-hunting braggadocio. The entire outfit, run by tour operator Arctic Kingdom, only exists for two months a year each fall while the ravenous polar bears mill about the shoreline waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze over so they can roam the ice, hunting for seals.

This is a land where rocks appear to levitate, where the daytime sky can appear black and where the setting sun reflects endlessly with undiluted colour.

At first glance through my viewfinder, the monochrome landscape of snow and stone holds few points of interest. Not a tree, road or hill breaks the line. But in the Arctic, appearances are deceptive. This is a land where rocks appear to levitate, where the daytime sky can appear black and where the setting sun, when sandwiched between white clouds and even whiter snow, reflects endlessly, filling the world with undiluted colour where you least expect it. The intensely cold weather shapes the people as much as it does the land.

Polar bears

Bear necessities: Camp visitors are separated from the north’s largest land predator by a 13,000-volt electric fence that keeps both parties safe without impeding the view.

The expedition leader, Jason, gave up a lucrative tech career for the silence of the tundra. Françoise, his right-hand woman, once tried to snorkel from Canada to Greenland as part of a female-only relay team. Our two Inuit guides, Cameron Emiktowt and Joachim Akatsiak, can spot a bear several kilometres away without binoculars. These are their ancestral hunting grounds, and have been for over a thousand years. Our chef, Andrew, remains upbeat while fighting a constant battle against unpredictable supply runs and furry, half-ton kleptomaniacs.

Over the next five days this frozen tableau will become my muse, from which I hope to learn a little about photography and a whole lot more about life in the North.

1. Overexpose by one stop

Bright white snow can confuse the light metre in some cameras into thinking the scene is overexposed. The camera then automatically adjusts, and the result can be grey and gloomy. Check your histogram to see if you need to overexpose a stop. The Arctic certainly forces you to look on the brighter side of life. On a day that starts at -13°C, I would normally be cowering under thick blankets with a Kindle. Instead, I find myself up early and invigorated by the frigid dawn. “Not bad at all,” quips Chef Andrew. The week before had seen 90 km/h winds, which he describes as “manageable, but they certainly let you know you’re alive.” This afternoon the weather feels tropical enough for two guests to jog along the landing strip in shorts. The rest of the group takes a walk along the beach searching for lazy bears that, on a balmy day like this, prefer to hunker down in the cool permafrost. “They’re ambush predators, so it’s perfect for them,” remarks Jason while peering over a rock bed. We make our way toward a forest of Arctic willows, which Jason promises are the “giant sequoia of the tundra,” but we soon discover that they grow no taller than 25 centimetres. He definitely has his Arctic optimism cranked up a notch.

2. Ignore the bells and whistles

Poke a hole in a shoebox, add a sheet of photographic paper and presto! You’ve just made a pinhole camera. Photography is really that simple. All you need is aperture, shutter speed and focus. The other buttons, while useful – the HDR, matrix metering, rear-curtain sync and the zillion other menu functions – you can live without. I am reminded of this fact every morning when I make the 20-metre dash from my cozy sleeping cabin to the communal dining room. As I shuck off my jacket and boots and open the inner door, a waft of breakfast-scented air overcomes me and brings with it a hot flush of gratitude. “Theatre, movies, restaurants, swimming pools, you give all that away when you come here,” remarks Jason, over our morning feast of chocolate-chip pancakes. The Inuit are hunters who believe in reincarnation and, as such, are exceedingly grateful for every animal they take. In the 1920s, an Inuit shaman told the polar explorer Knud Rasmussen that “the greatest peril of [Inuit] life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls.” Existence here underscores the notion that our human needs are very simple: food, shelter and warmth. I’m encouraged to be mindful, and grateful, for all the extra luxuries that I have – not the least of which is pancakes.

Bare-bones cabin

The digs may be bare-bones, but they make up for it with their proximity to some of the world’s best bear viewing.

3. Capture the context

I fill my 16GB SD card with polar bears on the very first day. After the rush of excitement at seeing the burly quarters of a bear in awesome close-up, all the photos begin to look the same. Then there is the issue of the electric fence. It appears in almost every shot, robbing me of the clean image I thought I wanted. The photos that hold my interest the most show more subtle moments: the way Joachim waves off a bear as casually as one might shoo the family dog from the dinner table; the sad beauty of a dead lemming wreathed by stones that we stumble upon while exploring the tundra; the haunting intensity of Jason in the cabin, fixing his attention on the horizon, completely unaware that the window has bathed his rugged features in perfect light; Françoise’s fierce blue eyes cinched by a fur-rimmed hood. I become fascinated with the context of the camp. The main cabin serves as my studio and I fill my SD cards with profiles of people waiting and watching for the bears to arrive. My original goal was polar bears, but it soon shifts to portraits. In the Arctic, animals migrate, the sea becomes solid and everything moves. You might start hunting polar bear, but don’t ignore a juicy caribou if it crosses your path.

4. Hurry up and wait

“You don’t go looking for polar bears, they come looking for you,” warns Jason rather ominously. Being patient requires a lot of preparation: Choose your lens, find the perfect angle and know the minimum shutter speed you need for a sharp image of a moving bear. I watch one afternoon as Françoise (who had wowed us with her award-winning portfolio over dinner) walks calmly to the edge of the compound and lies on her stomach, with no bear in sight. Within minutes a half-ton bear ambles directly into her frame, just as she knew it would. While hunting, the Inuit often stay put for hours, poised at breathing holes, waiting for seals. This speaks of patience and knowing how to prepare for imminent opportunities. But it doesn’t mean you need expensive gear. “People have turned up with little point-and-shoots and they get amazing pictures,” remarks Jason. The key difference: They know their gear, take time to prepare and show patience in getting the shot. Know how to make the most of the opportunities when they arrive and you’ll be amply rewarded. To others it will look like luck, but you’ll know the difference.

Photographers in full expedition gear

Adventurous photographers make the journey to Arctic Kingdom’s Nunavut camp, where, for two months each fall, polar bears congregate as the Hudson Bay freezes over.

5. Your batteries deplete faster

Normally, I can shoot all day on just one battery. Here, with wind chill dropping the temperature to -30°C, a battery hardly lasts an hour. In truth, I barely last an hour either. The energy-sapping chill slows everything down, except the ice that blows across the tundra with the eerie sound of broken glass. Even with Cam and Joachim spotting a polar bear 10 minutes before it lumbers into camp, I have scant time to don $2,000 worth of Arctic wear, check my camera settings, choose a suitable angle and ready myself for the bear’s arrival. “In this cold, I lost seven kilograms in six weeks,” claims Andrew. “I cook comfort food. Your body needs it.” I therefore forgive my body its seemingly irrational exhaustion and take naps as needed.

6. Believe in magic…

I know it’s impossible, but I swear I see rain on the horizon. “It’s going the other direction,” explains Jason. “Water is evaporating from the relatively warm sea and being sucked into the clouds.” It turns out the Arctic is full of strange phenomena. Another day, I photograph what appear to be boulders the size of apartment blocks levitating like hot-air balloons, an illusion caused by light refracting through the cold air on the horizon. The Inuit use the Arctic’s optical oddities to hunt: “Water sky,” for example, a black hole in an overcast sky caused by the less reflective water absorbing the sun’s rays, indicates a hole in the sea ice where seals are sure to congregate. Knowing the reason for the illusion helps you capture it on camera.

Gear

The sights are spectacular but photographers must be wary of the -30°C temperatures. Full expedition gear is necessary to brave the day.

7. …but don’t be fooled by tricks

In 1818, British explorer John Ross entered Lancaster Sound seeking the Northwest Passage, only to be confronted by a mountain range blocking his way. He named the range the Croker Mountains and turned back, defeated. As it happens, the Crokers were simply a “superior mirage” where curving beams of light in cold air stretch the flat landscape vertically. Life is full of illusions and false barriers. Knowing how they work means you’re less likely to be deterred from following your chosen path.

8. Become a master improviser

“Living in the Arctic is like living on a boat: You have to be self-sufficient and ready to improvise,” says Andrew, while hacking at a lump of frozen meat with a handsaw. “Last night a mother and cub tipped over a deep freezer and took the caribou meat and all of our garlic bread.” Tonight’s meal will clearly require some improvising. As with a life at sea, one item is universally hailed as the most useful of all: rope (and sometimes caribou sinew). The camp sled is held together with rope frozen to the texture of dried spaghetti, and Joachim wears a thin stretch of caribou sinew as a belt. In the spirit of improvisation, one guest presses her iPhone to a pair of binoculars and is rewarded with an acceptably good shot. Two other rules these Arctic folk swear by: Never lay your glove on the ground (if it blows away you’ll get frostbite), and always keep your parka in your sled in case your tent burns down. That night I backed up all my files to an external hard drive. If my digital “tent” burned down, I wouldn’t lose it all.

Expedition guide Françoise Gervais

Bears suitably captured, the photographer turns his attention to people, such as expedition guide Françoise Gervais.

9. Put your camera down

“If you’re viewing the whole trip through the viewfinder, then you’re missing it,” whispers Jason as we observe a mother teaching her cub how to break into a shipping container. (Surely these are the garlic-bread bandits?) “At the floe-edge camp, we had this giant walrus surface right underneath our feet. It was as big as a submarine, and the only people who didn’t see it were the photographers. They were too focused on looking through the viewfinder.” So, with the setting sun ablaze behind land’s largest predator and the full moon rising over my shoulder, I forget about the depth of field, the f-stop and the hundredth of a second my camera insists will capture the moment. I set aside my Nikon and fill my lungs with a blast of Arctic air. The fractions of a second expand, meld together – one second becomes a minute, then an hour. I suddenly sense the timelessness of the Arctic and have never felt so raw and alive.


Bears are just as afraid of you

“In the Arctic, there are hardly any thunderstorms and very few loud sounds,” explains Jason during our safety briefing. The staff are well protected with noisemakers, buckshot, rubber bullets and, their most useful weapon, a commanding voice. “They might seem big and scary, but polar bears don’t like noise and they especially don’t like to be touched,” says Jason.

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